Exactly thirty years ago, on August 29, 1991, the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan closed down. Within three decades it had witnessed more than 400 Soviet nuclear tests; almost a quarter of all nuclear tests on the planet. The date marks today the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
On July 16, 1945, the Nevada desert became the scene of the first nuclear explosion. The test was followed a few days later by the dropping of the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction was so immeasurable, that one wondered whether the new type of weapon would bring world peace or apocalypse. Now, 74 years later, the answer is neither, nor.
With the help of nuclear weapons, the USA and the Soviet Union guaranteed each other’s mutual destruction during the Cold War – and thus probably prevented an escalation. To demonstrate the credibility of their nuclear capabilities, the nuclear powers USA, Soviet Union, China, Great Britain and France nevertheless tested their weapons more than 2,000 times by 1990. Estimates from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons suggest that more than 2 million people are suffering from cancer as a result of these detonations. The victims of the French tests in the Pacific are still awaiting their recognition.
The international efforts for global zero, a world free of nuclear weapons, are based to this day mainly on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970. According to this treaty, non-nuclear-weapon states must not strive for possession of the bomb. Almost all the Member States of the United Nations are signatories, with the exception of India, Pakistan and Israel, which have instead preferred to develop their own nuclear weapons. North Korea left the treaty in 2003 and has also been considered a nuclear weapons state since 2006 at the latest.
It is to be feared that other states will try to follow this example. The dictatorial regimes of Iraq and Libya were overthrown by military intervention after they ended their own programmes for the development of nuclear weapons. These examples should be a warning to Iran, which has been working on a nuclear weapons programme for some time. However, not only dictatorships but also democracies have found warning examples in recent history. After the end of the Cold War, Ukraine had Soviet nuclear weapons at its disposal, but agreed to surrender them. When it then became a victim of Russian aggression in 2014, it could not effectively deter it.
Even if the number of nuclear warheads worldwide diminished from 70,000, during the Cold War, to around 14,000, they have by no means lost their significance. The end of the East-West conflict did not end the era of nuclear weapons, but merely the era of nuclear weapons testing.
Effects of Abstention from Testing
In 1996, a large majority of UN member states agreed on a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Even if the treaty cannot enter into force because India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed and the USA, Israel and China have not ratified the document, its stipulations are being respected. The exception is North Korea, which carried out a total of six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017; the only ones so far in the 21st century.
The renunciation of nuclear weapons testing has manifest effects on both nuclear powers and non-nuclear-weapon states. Non-nuclear powers depend on real tests to convince themselves and potential opponents of the functionality of their weapons. Without the possibility of testing, nuclear powers will find it difficult to develop their nuclear weapons further without sacrificing reliability. The US military has therefore already started to test its warheads in computer simulations in the framework of its so called Stockpile Stewardship programme. In this respect, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes a valuable contribution to curbing the proliferation and further development of nuclear weapons.
However, the destructive power of nuclear weapons and the risks posed by their deployment must not obscure the dangers posed by new weapons systems. These were tragically demonstrated only recently when, on 8 August, a nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile exploded on a military site in Nyonoska, Russia, killing five people and radiating several more.
Russia, the USA, China and India are currently working on the development of particularly powerful cruise missiles. These supposedly possess unlimited range and cannot be intercepted by existing systems, due to their speed. The arms race for new carrier systems has long since begun. However, there is a complete lack of international initiatives to limit and control them.
The development of dangerous weapons systems will continue to accelerate with technical progress. International arms control must try to keep up with this pace. During his speech in Hiroshima 2016, former US President Barack Obama found the right words: “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us”.
European Affairs Manager
Head of FNF Security Hub